As a little girl, fairytales and Disney movies taught me happiness is all that really matters. Apparently, the Dalai Lama seems to agree. He once famously said, "The purpose of our lives is to be happy." However, I cannot help but wonder how many of us actually achieve this purpose.
As I wonder, I start to realize that some of us do accomplish happiness, and this select group of people does so much easier than others. It is not because their lives are simply better. Rather, it appears to be an attitudinal difference. The happiest people see the same world and the same events in an entirely different light. The unhappiest people tend to be susceptible to thoughts and behaviors that reinforce their own negativity.
1. Stressful Thinking
Do you have trouble falling asleep at night because you cannot stop worrying about something bad that happened earlier that day or everything that you have to deal with tomorrow? When you reminisce on past friendships and relationships, do you remember the reasons they ended more so than the good times you shared? Do you criticize yourself more often than you praise yourself? Negative thinking is one of the simplest ways that people internalize their own unhappiness and then perpetuate negative thinking. Without breaking this cycle, attaining happiness is nearly impossible.
2. Negative Speech
When asked the simple question, "How are you?" happy and unhappy people have noticeably different answers. The former group will respond with a smile, "Fantastic," or "Never had a bad day yet," or "Never better." The latter group will reply with a half-hearted, "Okay," or "Doing well," or "Been better." The way you respond to such a simple question demonstrates much about your internal state of mind and how you perceive life. It works the other way around, too. If you verbalize that you are content and doing well (even if you do not fully believe it at first), you will begin to feel that you actually are. So even when you think you are just being honest with other people, avoid complaining when possible.
3. Complaining With Company
Take a quick moment to think about the people with whom you spend the most time. Are they generally negative or positive people? Do they spend more time smiling or frowning? If your most common conversations involve complaining and worrying, it may be time to change that pattern. Without surrounding yourself with positive influences and people who truly seek to be happy and want you to be happy, it is difficult to become disentangled from discontent.
4. Keeping to Yourself
Perhaps even worse than complaining with company is choosing to spend time alone. Withdrawing from your social circles is a side effect of misery. Unhappy people often prefer to work, watch television or spend time home alone, rather than to go out and focus on creating good memories with their family and friends. This effect is often associated with low energy and apathy. Ripping the Band-Aid off by forcing yourself to crawl out of your hole may be the most effective way to make yourself have some fun and break the habit of choosing isolation over company.
5. Lack of Appreciation
This one is tricky. We cannot all be like my 91-year-old grandfather, who consistently comments on the beauty of nature and the weather and exclaims, "I feel like an Olympian!" However, the people who can appreciate small blessings spend less time focusing on nuisances. Unhappy people will consume themselves with fear of losing what they have to the point that they can no longer be thankful for anything. Try to think about what you are grateful for when you are feeling upset. Regardless of what you have (and do not have), there are blessings in your life that you should appreciate.
Simply understanding the trade secrets of the happy ones will not automatically convert you to their team. Starting to identify when you yourself engage in behavior characteristic of an unhappy person, though, may help you to catch yourself from continuing along a treacherous path. The process of becoming happier will be easier for those naturally inclined to positive thinking and a general appreciation of life, but it is certainly possible for just about anyone to eventually achieve what the Dalai Lama believes to be our most important purpose.